Leg Cramps: The Final Word (Really?!)

I recently noticed that when people find my blog through an internet search, it is almost invariably for three reasons: they are searching for cramp remedies, they have heard some bad stuff about running and ibuprofen, or they want to get the 411 on kinesiology tape.  When I started writing this blog, I promised to return to various topics and offer some updates based on my being an experiment of one.

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps...

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps…

I’ll start with the issue of leg cramps. As I pointed out exactly a year ago, experts don’t agree on the causes of leg cramps. A fairly comprehensive piece by Gina Kolata in The New York Times, “A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/health/nutrition/14BEST.html?_r=0) gave a good rundown of the main suspects, including dehydration, sodium deficiency, and, finally, muscle fatigue. These are the big three, but I pointed out that regardless of the cause we needed some effective preventative, as well as ameliorative measures. I decided that I would experiment with ingesting mustard before races. The theory supporting mustard consumption is that that cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work and mustard contains acetic acid, which helps the body produce more acetylcholine. It is possibly the vinegar common in both pickle juice (a traditional anti-cramp remedy) and mustard that stimulates the necessary neurotransmitter. You may remember that I started having several tablespoons of mustard before races and that I ingested packets of mustard when I subsequently cramped during races. I wasn’t all that impressed with the results. I ran a series of longer races during the winter where I cramped during the later miles, ate some mustard from a packet, and continued to cramp. There also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of correspondence between dehydration and cramping. When I ran the New Year’s Day half-marathon – The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s very popular “Hang-Over Half,” I was fully hydrated and made sure that I hit every water stop and slowed down enough to actually drink. Nonetheless, I experienced painful calf cramps beginning around nine miles.  Nothing was really helping and cramping during races was becoming increasingly frustrating.

I now return to this topic, because I think I have an answer.  It’s probably not the one anyone will want to hear. I don’t think there is any magic elixir of pickle and mustard juice that can be consumed, nor do I believe that hydration levels need to be obsessed over. Instead, I think that leg cramps are due to muscle fatigue and that increasing muscle strength and endurance over time is the surefire way to combat this problem. The magic is more running. It might be that simple.  In my own experience, it was telling that my first major problem with cramps occurred when I raced my first half marathon. The HMRRC course is flat and fast and I managed to run most of my splits up to eight miles faster than any previous races at those distances. So, I was running PR pace for everything and going longer than I had ever before raced.  In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that my legs were not used to both racing long and faster: my legs got very tired and I started to cramp. This also explains several weeks later when I cramped even earlier during a 10K race. The distance wasn’t a problem, but – even with the cramping – I took more than a minute off of my PR. I was running everything faster and it is now clear that my overall muscle fitness had not caught up with my new racing pace. Since increasing my long runs at the beginning of this fall, I have had fewer problems with leg cramps. At this year’s Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon, I only experienced calf cramps during the final four hundred meters. Likewise, at my first time running the 15K Stockad-athon several weeks ago, I only started cramping during the final half mile. In both of these races, cramps occurred when I tried picking up the pace at the end. The good news, however, is that despite faster running – the first half of the Stockad-athon is very fast – my leg muscles appear to by acclimatizing to increased speed and distance. I am convinced that much of this leg strengthening is due to the miles that I have put in over the years, as well as the recent increase in my long runs.  The solution, then, appears to be a long-term one – more running – rather than any type of quick fix.

One of the questions that emerge from this revelation is “what about well-trained, professional athletes, who experience debilitating cramping episodes?” In these cases, I would suspect that athletes doing a whole lot of mileage and speed work might be going into races with tired legs susceptible to muscle fatigue despite doing all the things necessary to build muscle strength and endurance. Thus, if you experience an isolated incident of cramping during a race, it might just mean that you did not taper adequately for a race and your leg muscles were still stressed from previous hard workouts. I think the key to avoiding leg cramps is to have the necessary muscle strength and endurance for your chosen race distance.  This, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we are always striving to go faster and longer and it is difficult to be prepared for every distance and speed, especially if you have never before tackled a specific distance. My final piece of advice: don’t get freaked out if you experience leg cramps while pushing the limits of your speed and endurance. It merely means you are pushing your limits; but, luckily, with additional training you can successfully push back those limits. Cramps, therefore, might be a sign that you are on the way to getting faster, a painful indicator; but, ultimately, a positive sign of improvement.

What Does The Wall Street Journal Have Against Running?

The Wall Street Journal is at it again. Almost a year ago, Kevin Helliker published “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323330604578145462264024472) which used some sketchy science and some odd anecdotal examples to argue that too much running could be a health risk. My conclusion at the time was that alarmists such as Helliker were too quick to settle on a very low threshold for what constitutes “over doing it.” I am willing to entertain the idea that ultrarunners could get themselves into trouble by never giving themselves time to recover from inflammation. I will also, however, not be surprised if we find out that ultrarunners’ bodies are able to more efficiently deal with inflammation – they would just about have to, wouldn’t they? Helliker followed up this inflammatory article with another later in the year, “The Slowest Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) which argued that today’s younger runners lack the competitiveness of previous generations. The recognition that the sport’s growing popularity has increased the number of beginning and inexperienced runners is quickly glossed over in favor of a more newsworthy “crisis of competitiveness” argument, which was taken up by subsequent commentators such as Toni Reavis, who argued that this is a general problem in the United States and not limited merely to running. With the publication of Chad Stafko’s opinion piece, “OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It: Running a marathon is hard enough without also patting yourself on the back every step of the way” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579186401818882202), The Wall Street Journal once again decided that poking fun at runners and stirring controversy is a good way to generate page traffic. I know that Stafko’s piece is meant to be funny in a snarky, undergraduate kind of way; but it is written – as are many of these WSJ opinion pieces – like a lazy blog entry and made me wonder if the WSJ still has a paper edition. Yes, we understand that you can’t fathom why people would choose to run, when you can drive. Yes, we get it that the 13.1 and 26.2 bumper stickers might be ostentatious and self-congratulatory (I, too, think they’re a bit silly. It’s like an excessive touchdown dance in the end zone – act like you’re going to be there again.) and that you think running is just about exhibitionism. Yes, we ultimately realize that this was an attempt to humorously rile runners in an effort to multiply page views. As expected, runners, as well as those who appear to really hate runners, all weighed in as evidenced by 871 comments (when I last looked) and still counting. I can guarantee that a similarly sophomoric opinion piece or badly researched article about the dangers of exercise will grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal every several months (This is probably more about page views and advertising revenue than anything else.) as long as readers continue to take the bait.

Stafko’s accusation that runners take up the sport to be seen – he questioned their “infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it” – does raise the question about the meaning of running’s increasing visibility in our society. I think Stafko reaches the conclusion he does because he interprets all social interactions through the lens of capitalist self-interest – all of our actions (I don’t think many WSJ-enthusiasts would disagree) are shaped by money and the status conferred by money. With this type of “Wall Street Journal world view,” it does make sense that Stafko would interpret runners’ behavior and motivation as merely reflective of the worst aspects of the United States’ system of commercial capitalism: self-absorption and unchecked individualism. According to Stafko, runners run to be seen and subsequently the sport is more about conspicuous consumption than having fun, because how could it possibly be more fun to run ten miles than to drive?

Although Stafko’s piece was meant to rile runners, he does manage to indirectly raise some important considerations about why people run and running’s place in society as a cultural phenomenon. Since the 1880s (I’ll probably get more precise about this date range in the future.) there has been tension between the commercial attributes of the sport and running’s more metaphysical aspects. This tension and the struggle for balance was first manifest in the almost century-long debate between professionalism and amateurism and then, during the late 1970s with the rise of Nike, in the struggle between commercialism and running’s inherent radicalism. Running’s critique of societal norms, as well as its seeming promise to offer people a different way of giving their lives meaning has competed during the last thirty or so years with the recognition among various entrepreneurs and established athletics companies that given the right marketing running could be profitably “monetized.” At the same time that people such as George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers touted the simplicity of running and its essentially populist nature, companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Brooks (to name a few) were effectively arguing that running was not at all simple. In fact, to avoid injury and do it most effectively one needed protective, padded shoes, crammed with the latest in running shoe technology. This was an effective and profitable message that saw its corollary in all sorts of additional running gear. Running shoe companies, aided by a host of articles about training and injury prevention in books and magazines devoted to running, made a simple sport complicated. In making the complicated understandable (and in recent years, simple again) lay the avenue to profit.

I would argue that part of the commercialization of running was necessary to its coming of age as a professional sport. Sheehan and Rodgers, for example, were able to make their livings from the sport because of the popularity partially conferred through commercialization. I would argue, however, that they also professionalized the sport very much on their own terms. Rodgers often indicated that overthinking things could undercut one’s enjoyment of running, as well as training effectiveness, while Sheehan sold a lot of books by essentially arguing that running was appealing because it allowed for a very personal escape from the artificiality of the consumer capitalist system. It’s difficult to sum up Sheehan in one sentence and I have undoubtedly done an injustice; suffice to say that Sheehan was as surprised as anyone that he was selling books more about the metaphysics of running than the techniques of running. Without the growing marketing potential of the sport, however, it would have been unlikely that publishers would have taken risks on running books, or that Rodgers would have been able to open several stores devoted to running.

Stafko is right in recognizing that commercialization and the promise of profit has helped fuel the recent running boom. Weekends are filled with races, specialty running stores are popping up all over the place, and the shoe industry produces a dizzying number of models. Yet, after all is said and done, I would argue that people don’t take up running because effective marketing has convinced them that they should or that they feel consciously or subconsciously that this is a great way to fuel their exhibitionism, as Stafko would argue. For one thing, it takes too much effort – this isn’t a fad like collecting Beanie Babies, you still have to do the work (and it can be exhausting) – to become a runner. Thus, I would argue that running is still a transgressive act, even though it exists very comfortably in the world of business. Runners can’t help but to be seen. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an essential safety requirement. At its core, running constitutes a challenge to society. It is personal, yet communal. Perhaps most importantly, running provides a model of success that bears little resemblance to the money and status markers that typically define success in our capitalist society. It is a radical, empowering activity that has become mainstream and this must be scary for the Chad Stafkos of the world.

The New York City Marathon 2013: Some Final Thoughts

The New York City Marathon is now in the books, and my hat comes off for Toni Reavis’ prediction that Geoffrey Mutai was a sure thing. Marathon handicapping is a tricky thing. My guy, Olympic and World Championship winner Stephen Kiprotich never looked all that comfortable and looked like he was having a difficult time covering the leading pack’s surges. Mutai, however, looked impatient at times and ultimately ran away with it exactly as Reavis predicted, even though Mutai later admitted that the wind made it a tough race. It didn’t look all that tough, and one has to wonder what his time would have been without the wind. My prediction that Kebede might be “on the downside of his career” was obviously a bit premature. If he wasn’t trying to protect $500,000 he might have risked blowing up and challenging Mutai. Kebede looked good and I do predict that there are some additional marathon major wins in his future.

I did choose correctly (as did just about everyone else) in the women’s race, as Priscah Jeptoo won. I don’t think, however, that anybody predicted how Jeptoo would win. After spotting Buzunesh Deba 3:28 by mile 14, Jeptoo came storming back over the final miles to win by forty-nine seconds. The startling thing was that Deba and Tigist broke with the pack almost immediately, but really were not going all that quickly. The possibility of Deba “stealing” the race appeared to increase as the miles passed – she lives in the Bronx and trains on the course. It looked like an upset in the making. At a 1:54 into the race, however, Deba threw up and it was clear that she was slowing. I think she deserves a lot of props for hanging on for second place. I would definitely keep an eye on Deba for next year.

The final chatter coming out of the New York City Marathon is a perceived lack of competitiveness among the top American runners. Ryan Vail was the first male American in 2:13:23 in 13th, followed by Jeffrey Eggleston 2:16:13. Vail’s time was actually quite good considering the wind and bodes well for a sub 2:10 in the future. A cursory look back over New York results reveals that the U.S. field has never been all that deep. In 2003, for example Matt Downin ran a 2:18:48 to be the first American male. When Alberto Salazar won the 1981 New York City Marathon in 2:08:13, Tony Sandoval was the next top American in sixth in a time of 2:12:12. This is fairly typical, although it seems very fashionable these days to rue the lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners. The top American woman was Adriana Nelson, who ran a 2:35:05. No other Americans got under 2:40 and Joan Samuelson – age 56 – was the 15th American woman in 2:57:13 after decided the night before that she would even run the marathon. I wouldn’t start the hand wringing quite yet, but it is difficult to claim that American women didn’t have a rough go of it last Sunday. Should we immediately conclude that American distance running is in crisis, probably not? It might be easier to realize that the New York City course is tough at the best of times and the wind made it even worse. It has also been suggested that a lack of American-only prize money has made more competitive runners think twice about going to a race that will probably not result in a PB or a payday.

Finally, ABC7 and ESPN2 managed to deliver credible coverage of the marathon. There were some flashbacks to the old days when their coverage of the men’s race went AWOL and only returned after the Mutai’s surge had managed to break up the pack; but overall the coverage struck the right balance between professional sporting event and civic endeavor. It looks like it might be on for next year. On a personal note, I was inspired to go out for a long run and managed sixteen miles. Maybe a marathon is in my future…

2013 New York City Marathon Predictions

All I know for sure about tomorrow’s New York City Marathon is that it is going to be a classic race. The World Marathon Majors championship series is still up for grabs, which injects some serious additional motivation for Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede and London Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda who both toe the starting line on Sunday with $500,000 on the line. If Kebede is in the top three, the money is his, due to his London Marathon victory in April and his fourth place finish at the World Championship in Moscow. If Kiprotich wins Sunday’s race or comes in second with Kebede out of the top three, the Olympic and World Champion will take home the World Marathon Majors’ $500,000 purse. Kebede and Kiprotich’s race within the race should provide some additional – to put it mildly – drama. In pre-race interviews, Kebede has been straightforward in saying that the only person he is racing is Kiprotich. It’s difficult to say who has the advantage. Letsrun’s analysis of the upcoming race comes down strongly on Kebede’s side, citing his spectacular consistency, his motivation after the disappointment of finishing seconds short of the jackpot in 2010, indications that his training has been going very well after his disappointing fourth place finish at Moscow this summer, and the fact that he is familiar with the New York City course, having finished third in 2011. Kebede also comes across as being supremely confident.

In the World Marathon Majors competition I’m betting against Kebede’s experience and confidence and going, instead, with Olympic and World Champion Stephen Kiprotich who has a knack – obviously – for winning high stakes championship races with no pacers. Although he hasn’t previously run New York, the hills and turns and relative difficulty of the course should help to balance out the fact that his personal best is minutes slower than some of the other elites. It also sounds like he has been training well. This might be the race when we find out that Kebede – 15 marathons since 2008 – is on the downside of his career, whereas Kiprotich, unbeatable when it really matters, is on the upswing. Of course, there’s also the chance that in solely focusing on their competition with one another, neither Kebede nor Kiprotich will win the main event — $100,000 for first place. Running journalist and racing commentator Toni Reavis has argued that Kebede and Kiprotich “don’t have a prayer,” and that Geoffrey Mutai “is your winner of the ING New York City Marathon for 2013 right now.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/11/01/geoffrey-mutai-winner-new-york-city-marathon-2013/#more-8745) Mutai is as much of a sure thing, Reavis claims, as Alberto Salazar was in 1981. Reavis argues that Kebede and Kiprotich are out of the running because they will be concentrating too much on one another and won’t be willing to match Mutai if he goes out very fast. Mutai is also very motivated by the recent successes of his training partners Wilson Kipsang – the new world record holder – and Dennis Kimetto, who just bested the Chicago course record. He is, to put it mildly, very fit. Don’t forget that he also won the 2011 New York City Marathon in a crazy course record 2:05:05. Reavis has said he usually doesn’t make predictions, but you can essentially take this one to the bank. I don’t know, but I get the feeling that this might be the marathon in which Mutai finds out that you really do need to respect the distance.

Aside from Mutai, Kebede, and Kiprotich, are there any other possible winners? One of the exciting things about the marathon is, of course, its unpredictability. Many of the additional contenders are sentimental favorites. It would be great for the sport if they won, but it’s going to be tough. Wesley Korir, the surprise 2011 Boston Marathon victor has been splitting his time between serving in the Kenyan Parliament and training for the marathon. Korir is a charismatic and very likeable athlete who is great for the sport. It would be fantastic if he won. Next, we have Martin Lel, who won at New York in 2003 and 2007 (and who actually has a 100% success rate on the course) and has successfully overcome recent injury issues to make another run at it. His last marathon was a second place finish in 2:06:51 at the London Marathon – not too shabby and definitely a major contender if Kebede, Kiprotich, or Mutai falter. The guy that I really want to win is Meb Keflezighi. Underestimated during the last several years, Meb won New York in 2009, the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 and finished fourth in the London Olympics. His PB doesn’t compare with the top guys, but his experience in races without pacesetters should not be underestimated. Should the top elites beat up on each other too much, you can count on Meb to pick up the pieces. The very likeable Meb winning NYC on live national television would also be a serious boost to the sport of distance running in the United States.

Barring any last-minute injuries, the women’s race at this year’s New York City Marathon is easy to predict. Kenyan elites Edna Kipligat and Priscah Jeptoo are both vying for the World Marathon Majors prize purse of $500,000 and will also come away with $100,000 for winning Sunday’s marathon. Priscah Jeptoo wins the $500,000 if she prevails in tomorrow’s marathon, while Edna Kiplagat needs to come in first or second (second only works if Jeptoo doesn’t win). Head to head Kipligat and Jeptoo have each bettered the other twice, and while Edna has a slightly better personal best, Jeptoo’s last race was a sensational 65:45 half marathon in September at the Bupa Great North Run. She is fit. I would be surprised if the race doesn’t come down to Kipligat and Jeptoo trading surges during the last several miles. If Kiplagat and Jeptoo are both having off days, look for Kim Smith, running for New Zealand, but based in Providence, Rhode Island to finally show her true potential (2:22) in the marathon. Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia, who won the New York City Marathon in 2011 probably, feels a bit overlooked in the media whirlwind that accompanies New York. It’s not often that a defending champion is a dark horse, but Dado qualifies. If the favorites falter, she’ll win her second consecutive New York City Marathon. If I was forced to make a choice, I would bet on Priscah Jeptoo to win on Sunday, pick up $600,000, and continue her high quality racing. If there’s one thing I am confident of, it is that the first New York City Marathon after the 2012 cancellation is going to go down in running history as a classic.

Next weekend I’m running my first Stockade-athon 15K – oldest major 15k in the United States. Since the Adirondack Cross Country Championships I have been running long slow distance, emphasis on the slow. I think I have finally managed to convince myself that I have been running my long runs and recovery runs too quickly. This has been a problem since I started running in the early 1980s. Slowing down has really helped with being able to increase mileage. I think it might be too early for the results to show next weekend, but I definitely feel like I am on the right track.

New York City Marathon Television Coverage: Can We Be Optimistic?

So, the big news is that the New York City Marathon is going to be televised live for the first time since 1993. It will air on ESPN2 from 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM EST on Sunday, November 3 and we are also promised a national highlights show on ABC from 4:00-6:00 PM (I’ll be watching this because I don’t have cable). This was supposed to happen last fall, but hurricane Sandy, of course, intervened. Running fans and those who want to create more running fans are excited because an initial press conference with hosts John Anderson and Hannah Storm indicated that they, at least, were serious about presenting the marathon as an elite sporting event and appeared to be familiar with the athletes involved. According to a report of the press conference on the running website Letsrun, Hannah Storm chimed in that Stanley Biwott was her “x factor.” Everyone was also very excited to find out that Anderson is a long-time subscriber to Track and Field News. Race coverage will include thirty six cameras, three helicopters, six motorcycles, and a liberal use of split screen technology. Another saving grace is that the New York City Marathon is not on Universal Sports or NBC, so Tom Hammond will not be anywhere near the broadcast. I have to admit that I am feeling optimistic. I remember religiously watching the New York City Marathon in the 1980s, when it was first broadcast to cover Alberto Salazar’s world record (sort of) run in 1981 – a mix of examining Salazar’s splits and a focus on the front runners, as well as a liberal dose of human interest stories, helped to fuel the running boom and also fostered mass-participation in the populist endeavor of marathoning. As the years went by, however, the balance between elite coverage and “up close and personal” reports started to skew to the back of the pack. I noticed today when looking through a 2012 issue of Running Times, that one of the letters addressed the announcement that the marathon would be televised in 2012. The letter writer was optimistic, but urged that it be covered like any other professional sporting event: “My complaint with past marathon shows is that invariably the producers focus on all the ‘other stories’ of runners overcoming addiction or some other physical ailment, or raising money for a charity, or running while dressed as a gorilla.”(Letter of Brian Schafer, Running Times, August 2012, page 6) It is clear that running fans want less special interest stories and more race coverage

It is also clear that producers don’t believe that television audiences can be captured merely through compelling competition. Already, there are some ominous signs. A prerace behind the scenes show, “On The Run,” airing during race week will include features on charity runners, a 93-year old aiming to become the oldest New York Marathon finisher, and a runner who uses the marathon to get in shape for the world of competitive eating. (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/run-karla-run/2013/oct/30/how-watch-2013-ing-new-york-city-marathon/)

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You'll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC's Pentathlon in August. It's like a marathon...

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You’ll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC’s Pentathlon in August. It’s like a marathon…

I think what we are going to see is a tug-of-war between Anderson and Storm’s efforts to commentate as if they were at a major professional sporting event – which they are – and the producers’ efforts to please advertisers by pumping personal interest stories. Much of the success of the coverage will probably depend on the professional athletes themselves. A compelling fast race with numerous lead changes, some great tactical moves, and some blowups is probably the ideal way to keep an audience. If the race transpires as it did in 1983 when Rod Dixon chased down Geoff Smith in the final meters in the rain, human interest stories will probably not be necessary. Unfortunately, television has a rather bad track record when it comes to distance racing. It is par for the course that a critical break in a race will be made during a commercial or during an “up close and personal” segment. It doesn’t just sometimes happen, it almost always happens. That is why I am trying not to get too excited. There are some good indications that this time could be different, certainly the commentators will be a fresh of breath air; but, there are some signs that this could be merely a continuation of the same hackneyed, frustrating coverage that probably drove viewers away in the early 1990s. Regardless, I will be watching some running this upcoming Sunday.